on visibility, erasure, and other sight/image metaphors

Here’s a post on the use of terms like “visibility” in the context of asexual & other minority issues, brought to you by nothing in particular besides the fact that I’m unfocused and restless.

See, “visibility” is a fine word to express a specific abstract idea of societal access, awareness, and circulation, and yet… seeing it used too often, in certain ways, has begun to grate on me.

Not as much as “erasure” does, though my bristling at that one does feel more petty, to be honest… Could be just a matter of personal distaste, I guess.  When something is “erased” what my literal mind interprets that as is a literal cessation existence, like in sci fi when memories get erased… as opposed to how I’ve seen people using it politically, as a verb for when a fact is ignored, overlooked, covered up, or denied.  I don’t think erasing is a good metaphor for misrepresentating, obscuring, and lying, but maybe that’s just me.

As a side note — there’ve been select times when I’ve seen “erasure” used on something specific being conspicuously omitted or obscured for historical record, and… y’all.  We have a word for that.  Please don’t leave “censorship” to its misuse by various misogynists.  It’s a real, actual bad thing to be opposed.  But hey, me preferring one word to another… maybe that’s also just me.

If there’s anything that’s not just me, here, it’s a concern that “visibility,” as a fair goal, seems to sometimes gain too much focus and centrality as a priority in some ace rhetoric.  I think of visibility as an along-the-way kind of goal, as opposed to an end goal unto itself.  And sometimes, the way some people talk… I’mmm not so sure they agree.

More times then I can count, I’ve seen this “asexuals are invisible” idea forefronted as a core of asexual issues (complete w/ “invisible” as something we *are*, rather than something that is *done to us* — which it is. by the way. mass-scale process that is done. to. us.).  And I understand how, with so many of us having been kept in the dark with monolythic images of sexuality and internalized hetorosexism, resolving that seems like it could resolve a lot.

But when the issue’s highlighted just a little too much, I want to grab someone by the shoulders and say, hey, you know a demographic that’s also highly “visible”?  Women.  Women are visible.  Images and depictions of women would be hard to avoid, frankly.  Everyone knows that women *exist.*  And yet, by golly, it’s almost as if that hasn’t solved sexism.  It’s almost as if that wouldn’t solve challenges faced by ace survivors and antiace sexual entitlement, either.

Being seen, or being seen more often, is not liberation.  Visibility is not liberation.  Visibility, sometimes, can be so far from liberation, that in the case of misogyny they even have a term for that: “the male gaze.”  Being seen and looked at and openly perceived are not some unqualifiedly good thing regardless of the how.  I want to believe that if you think about it for more than two seconds, you’ll understand why “invisibility” is just a symptom, not a source.  A symptom, an outgrowth, a byproduct, of societal browbeating and a culture of rape.

Fact of the matter is, no amount of Horton-hears-a-Who-ing at folks with a chant of “We are here! We are here! We are here!” will ever sway the people who know you exist and who hate you for it.


8 responses to “on visibility, erasure, and other sight/image metaphors

  • Vesper

    to me, the difference between censorship and erasure, especially in regards to history, is when something is left out of or removed from records / textbooks / etc entirely (erasure) as opposed to something being present in records / textbooks / etc, just with information selective altered or removed (censorship), for example. that said, these days people often use “erasure” to refer to both these things.

    either way, i agree with you about overusage and the ridiculousness that is visibility being treated like an end-goal or solution to the things that aces face. i feel like things have improved on that front compared to years past, but it’s still a thing that i see and it’s incredibly frustrating.

  • Sennkestra

    I actually think visibility is still important, but I think it needs to be clarified a bit – what’s most important is making asexuality (and the community and resources it provides) visible to other potential aces, and the people who are trying to support them.

    Like, sure, chanting “we are here” won’t do anything to persuade bigots who want to hate you anyway – but I would argue that that’s not the point? The point of visibility is to help link potential aces and potential aces allies to the resources and communities that are necessary as a foundation for other activism to be based on.

    What visibility can do is let all the struggling potential aces know that hey, there are options besides gay and straight that are available to you. When asexuality is invisible, young people don’t know that it’s an option. When asexuality is invisible, questioning and struggling aces don’t know that there are resources and communities available for them. When asexuality is invisible, would-be allies don’t know that there are resources and communities that they could be making available to the [potentially] ace people in their lives, or steps they could be taking to make them more welcome.

    So yeah, if you work for “visibility” and end there, without putting much thought into why, I agree that that’s not enough. But I think that invisibility (and the way it prevents any attempts to communicate, gather, or begin to campaign for other rights) isn’t just a symptom, and while visibility work doesn’t solve all problems, it can still help with a hell of a lot.

    • Coyote

      “I actually think visibility is still important,”


      “But I think that invisibility (and the way it prevents any attempts to communicate, gather, or begin to campaign for other rights) isn’t just a symptom”

      Are you saying that I should ditch the metaphor or are you saying you’d rearrange its place in the metaphor?

  • Sennkestra

    With regards to erasure, I think it’s different than censorship in that censorship still involves some level of acknowledging that a thing exists, even if you do your best to hide it from everyone. Censorship of queer sexualities is definitely a thing, but I think it functions a little different from the systematic refusal to even acknowledge the possibility of specific sexualities like bisexuality or asexuality that “erasure” was coined to describe, and so having a term like “erasure” to highlight the difference between that and regular-old-queer censorship is important.

    Also, I think for erasure/invisibility rhetoric in general, it’s useful to look at the foundational works on the topic that been done in bisexual communities (where both of those terms originated) – that work dives a lot deeper into why exactly invisibility is harmful and how erasure actually works, and the actual theory behind it (rather than it just being a buzzword).

    For example, Kenji Yoshino’s “the epistemic contract of bisexual erasure” – which basically coined the term “bisexual erasure”, and which actually includes discussion of hypothetical asexuality in the same document – is a really informative read: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5389&context=fss_papers

    In general, though, I would acknowledge that it tends to get turned into more of a less-thoughtfully applied buzzword instead a of comprehensive theory, especially outside of sexuality/philosophy nerds who are really into that kind of theorizing (sort of like what happens with “intersectional”). So ideally, I’d like to see more people actually step back and learn more about the actual theory behind the term, and use it a little more thoughtfully. But I don’t think that necessarily compromises the usefulness of the actual theory, even if it isn’t always used with as much nuance..

  • queenieofaces

    It’s your friendly neighborhood historian popping in to point out that censorship a lot of the time is used to refer to guidelines about what is and isn’t publishable imposed by a centralized institution (the government, the editor of a particular media outlet, your department administration) and is NOT synonymous with erasure.

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